At the behest of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) established a “station” in Santiago in 1971 and conducted clandestine spy operations to support United States intervention in Chile, according to declassified Australian records made public for the first time on September 10 by the National Security Archive.
Released 50 years after ASIS initiated its covert action in Chile, the documentation sheds further light on the multinational effort to destabilise the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende, who was overthrown in a military coup 48 years ago, on September 11, 1973.
Following a CIA request for support in autumn of 1970, the declassified memos and reports indicate ASIS officials obtained approval from Liberal Party foreign minister William McMahon in December that year to secretly open a station in the Chilean capital.
In the spring and summer of 1971, ASIS officials sent agents and equipment to Chile to organise the station. “[Deleted] advises that our Station safe and typewriter will arrive in Valparaiso approximately 11th September, and be delivered to the [deleted] within a week”, noted one secret progress report in mid-1971.
But, after more than 18 months of operations — which appear to have involved handling several CIA-recruited Chilean assets in Santiago and filing intelligence reports directly to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia — in the spring of 1973, the new Labor prime minister, Gough Whitlam, ordered the director of ASIS to close down the Chile operations.
Whitlam was “uneasy” about Australia’s involvement because if it were to “receive any publicity as a result of these matters, then he would find it extremely difficult to justify our presence there”, according to one declassified memorandum of conversation written by then-ASIS director-general William Robertson.
“The Prime Minister said”, according to another declassified memcon, “he was very aware of the importance of this [operation] to the Americans and he was most concerned that they should not interpret his decision as being anti-American … He said he was most concerned that the Americans should not believe that he personally necessarily disapproved of what they were doing in Chile nor did he support Allende [redacted].”
The PM “was most concerned that CIA should not interpret this decision as being an unfriendly gesture towards the US in general or towards CIA in particular”, according to another report on their conversation.
The Australian ASIS station appears to have been closed down as of July 1973, although one ASIS agent reportedly stayed in Santiago until after the 1973 military coup. “All remaining station records etc. have been destroyed”, a Santiago cable advised headquarters on shuttering its spy operations. “… Station has been closed as planned.”
The rare declassification comes as the result of a series of freedom of information petitions filed by Dr Clinton Fernandes, a former Australian Army intelligence analyst, and professor of international and political studies at University of New South Wales Canberra, who has pressed the government to declassify historical national security files on secret ASIS operations in Indonesia, Cambodia and Chile.
“Many Australians would be entitled to express legitimate concern if ASIS … were exposed as having cooperated with the CIA in toppling the democratically elected government of Chile led by President Salvador Allende”, Fernandes argued in a legal brief presented to Australia’s Administrative Appeals Tribunal in May.
In his challenge to the government’s contention that, a half century later, any release of documents would still “harm” Australia’s ability to conduct international relations, Fernandes cited the declassification of thousands of top secret CIA documents in the US during the Bill Clinton administration, and even submitted copies of the National Security Archive book, The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability, as evidence that transparency would strengthen, rather than damage, Australia’s democracy.
At a closed hearing of the tribunal in June, government officials provided Fernandes with several hundred heavily redacted records — ASIS is referred to by the codename MO9 in the documents — relating to the opening, administration and closing of the ASIS station in Santiago between 1970 and 1973.
As a result of Fernandes’ declassification efforts, the tribunal is currently deliberating whether to compel the government to re-release those heavily censored historical records on Chile, with fewer redactions.
The Australian government is renowned for its culture of secrecy. “Australia May Well Be the World’s Most Secretive Democracy”, the New York Times declared in a headline two years ago. “No other developed democracy holds as tight to its secrets”, the article reported.
Indeed, the documents turned over to Fernandes contain few revelations of actual covert operations, intelligence gathering or liaison relations with the CIA in Chile; those sections of the records are completely censored.
The majority of the cables, memos and reports focus on the banal nuts-and-bolts of establishing, staffing, supplying, and administering an intelligence station: among other issues, they record monthly expense reports, housing arrangements, communications methods, security inspections and numerous authorisation requests to acquire equipment such as safes, cameras, stationery and vehicles for the ASIS agents to use in Santiago.
“We recommend [deleted] place order for German, repeat German made Volkswagen Beetle … light grey or fawn in colour”, with an estimated cost of $1800, one cable stated as the station was being established.
“You should be aware this vehicle took a sad beating”, the station reported to ASIS headquarters on a second car — a Fiat 600 — as it disposed of its assets two years later before closing down. “The windscreen was broken and body work damaged in the course of a rock fight between opposing factions during the riots in Santiago.” Despite being damaged, the report concluded, “the vehicle was sold at a higher price than we originally paid for it”.
The documents do, however, confirm details of Australia’s covert operations in Chile that have leaked to the press and appeared in accounts of former officials over the years.
Following the episode on Chile, Whitlam requested an investigation of all Australian intelligence activities by the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security. An eight-volume secret report, written by Justice Robert Hope, included a detailed account of the Chile operations, parts of which leaked to the press.
As early as October 1974, the Sydney Morning Herald published a short story titled “Aust spies helped CIA plan to topple Allende”.
In 1977, Whitlam (then opposition leader) briefly acknowledged the Chile operations in parliament. “It has been written — I cannot deny it — that when my Government took office Australian intelligence personnel were still working as proxies and nominees of the CIA in destabilising the Government of Chile”, he conceded.
Brian Toohey and William Pinwell's investigative history Oyster: The Story of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, published in 1990, drew on the information in the Hope report; but the Australian government subjected the book to pre-publication censorship and managed to keep most of the details on ASIS’s CIA-Chile operations secret.
“The Australian government insists on secrecy to avoid having to admit to the Australian public that it helped destroy Chilean democracy”, said Fernandes, who continues to await a decision by the tribunal for further declassification of the historical record.
“The primary beneficiary of this secrecy is the Australian government, which enjoys security from democratic accountability, and security from robust, evidence-based debate as to how the intelligence services should be used. But", he concluded, “this is not national security in any meaningful sense”.
[Peter Kornbluh is the director of the (US) National Security Archive’s Chile Documentation Project and Cuba Documentation Project. He played a large role in the campaign to declassify government documents, via the Freedom of Information Act, relating to the history of the US government’s support for the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. The censored archive posts can be read here.]